Río Cuale and South
Note: If you’re coming to Puerto Vallarta mainly for its gourmet offerings, avoid, if possible, September and October, when some of the best restaurants are closed.
Archie’s Wok (Francisca Rodríguez 130, btwn. Av. Olas Altas and the beach, tel. 322/222-0411, 2–11 p.m. Mon.–Sat.) is the founding member of a miniature “gourmet ghetto” that is flourishing in the Olas Altas neighborhood. The founder, now deceased, was John Huston’s longtime friend and personal chef. However, Archie’s widow, Cindy Alpenia, carries on the culinary mission. A large local following swears by her menu of vegetables, fish, meat, and noodles. Favorites include Thai coconut fish, barbecued ribs Hoi Sin, and spicy fried Thai noodles ($8–15). Make up a party of three or four, and each order a favorite. Arrive early—there’s usually a line by 7:30 p.m. for dinner; Visa accepted.
Next door to Archie’s Wok, Restaurant Pekíng (F. Rodríguez 136, tel. 322/222-2264, noon–10 p.m. daily, $6–8) adds a new, refined version of Chinese cooking to Puerto Vallarta’s already rich gastronomic treasury. Perhaps the promise of “the only Chinese-born chef in Puerto Vallarta” is its secret to success, but the food, whether a light lunch of spring rolls and wonton soup or a dinner of stir-fried scallops, kung pao chicken, and a whole fish, is bound to please.
One block due north, across from the Hotel Plaza San Marino, Karpathos Taverna (R. Gomez 110, tel. 322/223-1562, 4–11 p.m. Mon.–Sat., $3–12) has acquired a considerable local following by creating a little corner of Greece here in Puerto Vallarta. Although the ambience comes, in part, from very correct service and the Greek folk melodies emanating from the sound system, the food—genuine Greek olives, feta cheese, rolled grape leaves, savory moussaka (layered eggplant), piquant roast lamb, garlic-rubbed fish with olive oil—seems a small miracle here, half a world from the source.
Head back down Olas Altas to Restaurant Kaiser Maximilian (Olas Altas 380B, tel. 322/222-5058, reservations 322/223-0760, 4–11 p.m. daily) at the Hotel Playa Los Arcos, a prominent member of the growing roster of Olas Altas gourmet gems. Here, the Austrian expatriate owner skillfully orchestrates a cadre of chefs and waiters to produce a little bit of Vienna with a hint of California cuisine. From his long list of appetizers, consider starting off with prune-stuffed mountain quail in nine-spice sauce with polenta ($13), continue with organic salad greens in vinaigrette ($5), and finish with scalloped rahmschnitzel with noodles in a cream mushroom sauce ($12) accompanied by a Monte Xanic Baja California chenin blanc ($20). If you have room, top everything off with Viennese apple strudel ($5). Alas, the only thing missing at Maximilian is zither music playing softly in the background. Reservations strongly recommended.
Mexican food is well represented south of Cuale by a duo of good restaurants, Los Arbolitos (described later in this section) and The Café de Olla (Basilio Badillo 168, tel. 322/223-1626, 9 a.m.–11 p.m. daily except Tues., $6–10), a few doors uphill from the Olas Altas corner. During high season it will be recognizable by the flock of evening customers waiting by the door. Café de Olla serves Mexican food the way it’s supposed to be, starting with enough salsa and totopos (chips) to make appetizers irrelevant. Your choice comes next—either chicken, ribs, and steaks from the street-front grill—or the savory antojitos platters piled with tacos, tostadas, chiles rellenos, or enchiladas by themselves or all together in its unbeatable plato mexicano. Prepare by skipping lunch and arriving for an early dinner to give your tummy time to digest it all before bed.
As Archie’s Wok did in the Olas Altas neighborhood, Memo Barroso’s Casa de los Hot Cakes has sparked a small restaurant and café renaissance on Basilio Badillo, now so popular it’s becoming known as the “Calle de Cafes.”
Another good place to feast is Hacienda Alemana Frankfurt (Basilio Badillo 378, one-half block uphill from Insurgentes, tel. 322/222-2071, 11 a.m.–10 p.m. daily), the closest thing to a German Biergarten south of New Braunfels, Texas. Brainchild of master chef Michael Pohl, who started out with a budget hotel in 1995 (which still operates) and expanded to a garden restaurant a few years later, works his miracle with aplomb. Besides all of the German favorites, such as smoked pork chops with sauerkraut, Wiener schnitzel, bratwurst ($8–13), and melt-in-your-mouth apfel strudel, Michael also offers popular French, Italian, and vegetarian specialties. If you can manage to skip lunch, go for the best of all, Michael’s all-out effort—a genuine Bavarian buffet (about $18, served Nov.–Apr., 6–10 p.m. Mon., Wed., and Sat., call to confirm).
If, on the other hand, you’re hungry for Chinese food, go to Dragón Rojo (Insurgentes 323, btwn. V. Carranza and B. Badillo, tel. 322/222-0175, 1–11 p.m. daily, $5–10). Here, competent chefs put out a respectable line of the usual San Francisco–style Cantonese specialties.
A number of good restaurants offer both leisurely ambience and good food right on the bank of the Río Cuale. Moving upstream, start at the River Café, beneath the downstream Avenida Vallarta bridge (tel. 322/223-0788, 9 a.m.–10 p.m. daily). Owners have earned a solid reputation with a gorgeously tranquil streambank location, tasty international-style cuisine, and attentive service. Here, breakfast (omelettes $6–8), lunch (River Café Salad $8) and sandwiches (vegetarian $9), and supper (ribs, fish, and Mexican specialties $8–14) are equally enjoyable. Relaxing instrumental music afternoons and subdued jazz evenings complete the River Café’s attractive picture.
For indulgently rich but good food and luxuriously leafy atmosphere, the showplace Le Bistro (Isla Río Cuale 16A, tel. 322/222-0283, 9 a.m.–11:30 p.m. Mon.–Sat., $10–20) is tops, just upstream from the Avenida Insurgentes bridge. Renovations with lots of marble and tile have replaced some of the former bohemian-chic decor with European-elegant. Nevertheless the relaxed, exotic ambience still remains: The river gurgles past outdoor tables, and giant-leafed plants festoon a glass ceiling, while jazz CDs play so realistically that you look in vain for the combo. It’s first come, first served—reservations not accepted.
For good Mexican food, Los Arbolitos (Camino Rivera 184, tel. 322/223-1050, 8 a.m.–11 p.m. daily, $6–12) remains very popular with longtime Puerto Vallarta visitors, despite its out-of-the-way location (bear right at the upper end of Av. Lázaro Cárdenas, way upstream along the Río Cuale). Here, home-style Mexican specialties reign supreme. The house pride and joy is the Mexican plate ($12), although it serves dozens of other Mexican and international favorites. Colorful decor, a second- floor river-view location, and attentive service spell plenty of satisfied customers.
Your stay in Puerto Vallarta would not be complete without sunset cocktails and dinner beneath the stars at one of Puerto Vallarta’s south-of-Cuale hillside view restaurants. Of these, the Vista Grill (formerly Señor Chico’s, Púlpito 377, tel. 322/222-3570, 5–11 p.m. daily, reservations recommended, $10–25) continues as a visitor favorite for its romantic atmosphere and airy town and bay view. Soft guitar solos, flickering candlelight, pastel-pink tablecloths, balmy night air, and the twinkling lights of the city below are virtually certain to make your Puerto Vallarta visit even more memorable. It’s best to get there by taxi. If you drive yourself, turn left at Púlpito, the first left turn possible uphill past the gasoline station as you head south on Highway 200 out of town. After about two winding blocks, you’ll see the Vista Grill on the left as the street tops a rise. Winter nights it’s best to bring a sweater or jacket. The offshore breeze by 9 p.m. may be a bit cool.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Puerto Vallarta, 7th edition